There’s been an outbreak of ‘India’ books lately; the first signs of an epidemic. Or, if you want to look at the phenomenon more kindly, there’s been an efflorescence. There was Ramachandra Guha’s Makers of Modern India, and, at around the same time, Patrick French’s compendious account, which (as his difficult biographee Naipaul did with his own great work from 1990) he entitles, simply, India. (He and Naipaul have different, but numerical, sub-headings: ‘a million mutinies’; ‘1.2 billion people’). Anand Giridharadas has published a book called India Calling. At least two more are imminent, by intelligent, unsparing writers. One will be by the novelist Siddhartha Deb; his astute chapter on the self-appointed management guru Arindam Chaudhuri is already out in n+1. The other is The Butterfly Generation by Palash Krishna Mehrotra. Anyone who’s read Mehrotra’s journalism will know he’s a gifted, recalcitrant maverick who fully, and fitfully, inhabits the age. His book may not be a recognisable ‘India’ book at all.
Of course, there has been an Anglophone taking stock of this potent word—India—for some time now. It all seems to have begun with Sunil Khilnani’s The Idea of India. Although its theme is the transplantation and flowering of the ‘democratic idea’ on Indian soil, its title identifies a tendency that would increasingly become a norm: to see India not as a place, but as a concept you could experience, an idea making its way in the world. The title of an earlier academic study by Ronal Inden, Imagining India, had already suggested that India was something that had been conjured up in the head, as, in a way, Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities said the nation was.
Naipaul’s India, about a country on the verge of free-market capitalism and tremendous change, proposed an India that was resurgent, a view that was already being elaborated upon by others, including political parties like the BJP. Yet Naipaul’s book was primarily about a place—as all his ‘India’ books have been—an agglomeration of remembered rooms, buildings, apartments and neighbourhoods in which people are encountered and interviewed, and from which their lives are recorded. This is what makes Naipaul’s India so compelling and ambiguous at once—for place, in all its strange, transient immediacy, exists nowhere more fully than in writing; and we’re never sure why we recall and notate certain details about a room and ignore others. However pervasive the idea of India might be, one would have thought it couldn’t compete with the unexpected veracity of the place itself.
There are probably certain temperaments that have a low tolerance for abstraction, and are drawn towards the physical and particular. Some such revulsion against ‘India’ as an abstraction that reigns over us must have prompted me to say in these pages, in my ‘Books of the Year 2010’, that I was planning to read a book, “for not having ‘India’ in its title”; it also made me recommend Arun Kolatkar’s Collected Poems for, among other things, making “hardly any mention of India—what more could one want of a book?” At the time, I was just being petulant about this thing that always hangs over us—the idea of India—and didn’t have either Khilnani’s elegant monograph in mind, nor French’s and Guha’s recent offerings. After all, India is now being transformed, and it’s transforming others: why shouldn’t people write about it?
Inner quarrel makes one restless, ill at ease with received opinion. In India, despite vigorous public dispute, there’s very little inner argument.
At the same time, I’d begun to wonder in the last two years if it was possible to produce a voluminous, urgent book about something else—poetry; sericulture; popular music. Or could one bring everything one knew and felt about India at this moment in history and write a book without mentioning the word ‘India’ at all—just as, say, Georges Perec had deliberately abolished the letter ‘e’ from his novel La disparition? Could one, sitting in Bombay or Calcutta, manage to complete conversations and sentences concerning fashion, film, sports and literature without using that word? Perverse curtailments and self-imposed taboos can, as both Houdini and the Surrealists proved, be occasionally liberating.
The new ‘India’ books, and India-centred books, have had their critics. In these pages, Pankaj Mishra expressed his doubts about Patrick French’s vision, and version, of India; which led French to express his doubts about Mishra. (Mishra is one Indian writer who almost customarily provokes the ad hominem attack.) I’m told that Giridharadas was also scolded and upbraided in the country he’s written of: Indian reviewers are great scolders. In the magazine Open, Hartosh Singh Bal saw William Dalrymple’s dominance over the Jaipur Literature Festival as the continuation of a colonial fiefdom, and the Indian bourgeoisie’s (admittedly, that wasn’t his exact generic description) acceptance of the Festival as a sign of its cravenness. Dalrymple, wounded, pointed out that ethnicity could neither be a qualification nor a disqualification in the business of culture (I use the word ‘business’ figuratively).
Notwithstanding the noise and the attendant excitement, important points were raised in all critiques and responses. For instance, Bal believes—correctly, I think—that readers in India wouldn’t be interested in Orhan Pamuk if he didn’t arrive here with prior Western endorsement and the Nobel Prize. But, importantly (and Bal doesn’t pursue this), I don’t think Pamuk leads Indians to speculate if there are other writers in Turkey, or even Turkish writers more congenial to one’s particular literary affiliations. This is so partly because, despite all the outward argumentation (to which Amartya Sen dedicated a book), there’s relatively little inner argument. “We make out of the quarrel with others, rhetoric, but of the quarrel with ourselves, poetry”: thus, W.B. Yeats. Not just poetry, but ideas and intellectual inquiry. It’s the second kind of quarrel that makes one restless, ill-at-ease with received opinion, impatient with one’s own culture and suspicious of readymade notions of other cultures; that private, self-directed agitation leads to our impulse toward reassessment and discovery. Public dispute is important, but it’s no substitute for the inner quarrel.
One minor consequence of these recent public quarrels is that Outlook has asked me to reflect on them; particularly on the matter of who has the right to speak of, and write about, India. I suppose the question we ask ourselves, implicitly, even subconsciously, during such debates is, ‘Who owns India?’—metaphorically rather than literally. In recent issues of the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, the question of ownership has, coincidentally, been posed with regard to authors: Who owns Kafka? and Who owns Coleridge? respectively. For it’s our writers, poets and thinkers whose works are situated in the battleground of ideas, who are appropriated by competing camps and factions, and must be fought over by successive generations. To ask, ‘Who owns India?’ (repeatedly, as we do), is to turn it into an intellectual property, and place it firmly in that battleground. Noticeably, we hardly ever ask ‘Who owns Rabindranath?’ or ‘Who owns Kalidasa?’ or ‘Who owns Souza?’ Does this say something about the marginality of culture to our debates and argumentation? Is ‘India’ actually the best idea we Indians can come up with? It’s an alarming thought.
Yet it’s an idea that’s in the atmosphere. And our response to it is indulgent and participatory. Despite all the debate, the dominant ethos in the country is one of consensus, and of an increasingly coarsened aesthetic. You notice this when the national anthem is played at the beginning of a film. Various ‘iconic’ figures—Balamuralikrishna, Asha Bhonsle, A.R. Rahman—sing a line or two, a cut-price harmonic ‘pad’ being provided in the background by a synthesiser. The metamorphosis of Jana Gana Mana into a kind of We Are the World, an instance of heightened self-absorption and self-congratulation, is discomfiting. As the anthem is sung with varying degrees of passionate schmaltziness, ‘India’ becomes the two-pronged thing it is now, asking us to be moved by it on one level, assaulting us on another.
This kitsch anthem has many incarnations. Most often, we encounter it as the television commercial, from Pepsi, cement companies, Bajaj, Nano, to most other car manufacturers. These tunes begin as jingles and become anthems, inviting us to celebrate the convergence of the market and the nation. Their sound is either subtly or heavily percussive, with repetitive, often hectoring, rhythms, phrases and exhortations. This, too, is A.R. Rahman’s preferred compositional mode these days; the idea of India deeply permeates his work.
Perhaps it’s time to pronounce a moratorium on that idea. Who knows what melodies we might begin to hear?